It doesn’t take long for someone at St Bonaventure’s in Forest Gate, London to procure a picture of Chuba Akpom in his black and gold-trimmed blazer, staring into the camera with the reluctant half-smile of any teenager being asked to pose with an award by his teacher.
Signed to Arsenal’s academy five years before lifting a pen at the Catholic school in East London, the then 11-year-old, armed with a mean toe-poke and size-3 football, was being prepped for the interminable path to stardom.
And so it continued blissfully. By the time the starlet was celebrating his 18th birthday, he had already shared his Premier League debut with one Mesut Ozil, surpassed Thierry Henry’s heralded sprint record at London Colney, and amassed a Romanic-sized army of social media followers stretching between London and Lagos.
Yet now the 23-year-old is returning to the capital without the banner of Arsenal behind him for the first time when Greek Superleague leaders PAOK challenge Chelsea on Thursday. In the past six years, spent at as many clubs, Akpom has seen his career shift from the Acardian to the nomadic, culminating in walking away from Arsenal for the final time this summer.
“It was the end of the era,” Akpom says. “I was there from six years old. When you’re somewhere for so long, leaving is never going to be easy.
“I spoke to him [Unai Emery]. He just said that there’s a lot of strikers and it would be hard for him to give me game time, which I respected because that’s very honest and that’s what you want from a manager, just to be real with you.”
In hindsight, it was Akpom’s intrepid pursuit of playing time, where many would have preferred to stay cuddled within the bosom of Arsenal’s academy, which derailed his flourishing career.
A series of three successive loan spells, beginning at League One Brentford just two months after celebrating his 18th birthday, acted like a cartoonish lever derailing Akpom’s passage to the Premier League. Over the course of two seasons, the tenacious finisher went without a goal, and appeared just 17 times in total in stints at the Bees, Coventry and Nottingham Forest, before returning to his parent club with his growth stock sharply devalued. Yet, even then, it’s not a decision he lingers over from the impossibly white beaches in Thessaloniki.
“I pushed for a loan as soon as I turned 18. It can be tough [on loan]. You might not be in the squad, might not start, there’s a lot of things that make that little bit of doubt creep in. Especially when you’re thinking like Arsenal are looking and I’m not playing. It looks bad, but I saw people my age playing and I thought I want to be as well. I don’t want to be in the reserves, I want a challenge. That’s just who I am.
“At Arsenal, it was frustrating. Just thinking why am I not playing? Why am I not getting opportunities? I think I did well when I had the chances, I was top goalscorer in preseason, and I think I did well when I played in the cups. Sometimes, that’s just how it is. Maybe my path is different from other players, but I’ve never had any regrets… but I didn’t really get a real opportunity [at Arsenal] in my opinion.”
Yet during year-long loans with Hull and Brighton between 2014-16, signs of Akpom’s frustration came to the fore when he hurled his gloves at Steve Bruce after being substituted. At the latter, he was even accused of being sulky and sluggish.
“Sometimes you can lose touch of reality when you’re at a top club,” he says. “Going to those clubs showed me the other side, not the luxury, there’s another side where you have to work.
“It’s strange [going out on loan] but it makes you grow as a man, not just as a footballer. You have to go somewhere you’re not familiar with, look after yourself at such a young age and just mature quicker than normal.”
“I’ve been on loan since I was 18, 19, 20, and upwards. It was a bit scary at first but you get used to it. When I tell people that I’m only 23, people are like ‘wow’. They’re surprised because I’ve been around for so long.”
And so having played for seven clubs without ever making a permanent move, Akpom took Emery’s encouragement to move elsewhere and decided to follow his close friend Jadon Sancho overseas.
And with offers from Anderlecht and Club Brugge in Belgium, Mainz 05 and Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany, as well as others in France, Akpom settled on PAOK, lured by the prospect of title-challenges and European football, not to mention the warm breeze of the Aegean in contrast to the dreary winters of Barnet.
“The lifestyle is good, you train and then you can just relax, go round the town, go round the beach and the weather’s nice. It helps you to settle and I’ve adjusted well with the team quite quickly. And the fans are amazing, I tell my friends they need to experience one game at the Toumba, the flares, the fireworks, it’s another level.
“It’s nice to be somewhere else for a change and experience a different culture, a different way of living, that’s what life’s all about after all.”
And so now, having scored his first goal for the club a fortnight ago and on the verge of securing a long-awaited berth in a starting eleven, Akpom’s career comes to a type of premature full-circle on Thursday. The fantasy held at St Bons of playing against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge coming to fruition, albeit in a different kit, with a collection of old school friends coming to watch.
The roundabout career which has only just breached the 100 game barrier, yet has seen the youngster don eight different crests across three countries. A passage which, despite unforeseen toil, is now reaching a potentially pivotal moment in the city where it was predestined to start and finish.
“Obviously, when you’re playing at Arsenal, you want to become part of the same team, play in the stadium, but it doesn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work somewhere else. Who knows, you might even do well and come back to Arsenal one day.”
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